Neoplastic fantastic

Last week, a friend and I popped in to the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in the town centre to see some (free!) art. It felt a bit surreal to visit an exhibition on the Dutch painter Mondrian in Rio, but I had always assumed he was French in any case, so what do I know?

The contrast between the artworks themselves and the architecture of the building in which they’re displayed is quite striking. The 3D representation of the ideas of Mondrian and the De Stijl movement is positioned directly below the immense domed skylight.

The exhibition was remarkable and I really enjoyed seeing the progression of Mondrian’s painting style, particularly as certain early paintings reminded me very strongly of Cézanne, Van Gogh and Seurat. I am not very familiar with any of these artists, but it certainly made me appreciate having art books in the house while growing up and being able to pop in to the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery when I lived in London.

As far as I understand (from his Artsy biography), Mondrian pursued purity in his art, leading him to use only black, white and grey, the primary colours red, blue and yellow, and vertical and horizontal lines. He held to this so rigidly that he left the De Stijl movement when van Doesburg, a fellow artist and founder of the movement, reintroduced diagonal lines into his own art.

I appreciate that the pursuit of purity is important but holding to a purity of expression that is entirely prescriptive in that way seems worryingly extreme, and put me in mind of the almost competitive extremism of far right groups where an increasingly exclusive idea of purity (based on body type or ethnicity, for example) is elevated and all others are rejected, and attempts made to eradicate them. I’m not for one moment suggesting that Mondrian was a Nazi, and perhaps if I had seen this exhibition in a political climate not dominated by hateful rhetoric, racism, sexism and the further marginalising of ethnic and other minorities, I would not have been so taken aback by what I saw. Perhaps I am reading this back into his work and it never existed there in the first place. Perhaps not. But like good art, it made me stop and think.

Mondrian is probably most famous for his paintings of lines and blocks like the one above, and they certainly cause quite an impact with the cleanness of the lines and the boldness of the colours. Yet I think that I prefer his early work; the chickens and trees and farmhouses, which are for me, and like me, caught between foreign and familiar.

This post was originally published on the 6th of December 2016 and has been transferred from my previous blog (Brazil from the outside in hosted by Blogger) after some technical difficulties with the site.

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